Multi-tasking seems to be a fact of life for most of us these days. With all there is to do, learn, and manage, it seems necessary. But as with so many other things, there are plusses and minuses; and it benefits us to consider those factors and manage our use of multi-tasking accordingly.
Does multi-tasking affect your health? It may seem like it is increasing productivity and saving you time and energy, and many of us are proud of our multi-tasking abilities. However, ongoing research has confirmed that multi-tasking can have negative effects on levels of productivity and, in some cases, of our overall brain health.
Multi-tasking Is Safe Only If Different Stimuli Are Used
Experts agree that multi-tasking is safer if the tasks involved do not use the same stimuli, such as reading a message from the laptop while listening to music. Our brain is not designed to deal with the same stimulus challenge at the exact same time.
That is why driving a vehicle and texting on a phone at the same time is considered extremely dangerous. You are using the same visual stimulus. They are both competing for the same limited focus. Although it appears you are multi-tasking, you can only be actively engaged with one or the other.
So instead of doing two things at once, you are actually rapidly switching from one to the other, and back again. If your attention is attracted to the phone for a second too long, the job of consciously controlling the vehicle ceases, and catastrophe can follow.
Another example is when you are attempting to listen to multiple conversations around you. I know I have tried to do that. But it is impossible to really listen to two people who are talking to you simultaneously, because your auditory stimulus becomes overwhelmed.
Multi-tasking Can Harm Your Memory Ability
If you find yourself multi-tasking, each task in which your mind is engaged will drain a part of your mental energy. As your mental energy drains, you become more absent-minded. This is because your mind begins to drift.
Even if you could complete the two tasks successfully, you will quite probably not recall how you completed the tasks. This is because our brain does not have the ability to fully focus on two or several tasks at the same time.
Each time you multi-task, your mind becomes a juggling act. When you multitask, you are diluting your mind’s investment towards each task.
When Multi-taskers Think They Perform Better
A study headed by Zheng Wang of Ohio State University (Multi-Tasking Study, Ohio State University)showed that people who were text messaging while being asked to focus on the images displayed on a computer monitor had decreased levels of performance.
What makes this finding even more troubling is that those subjects who were asked to multi-task using the same visual stimulus, believed they performed better, although the results showed the opposite.
Their ability to focus on images displayed on their computer monitor plummeted up to 50% even though they thought they were performing perfectly. The same study participants were asked to multi-task using different stimuli, such as visual and auditory, and even then were found to have reduced levels of performance as much as 30%.
Professor Wang stated that performance level perception when multi-tasking is not the same, as the results proved. Researchers have also found that media multi-tasking increases your risks of developing impaired cognitive control.
The most current research is confirming that multi-tasking means “performing multiple tasks sub-optimally”. Unfortunately, in addition to productivity losses, there is a compounding, taxing burden placed on the mental and emotional faculties. This results in accumulated stress, which is already a very real problem for many, if not most, to some degree.
Although technology today makes it difficult for us to avoid multi-tasking, we can manage the effect on our performance of tasks and on our health. Awareness and trying to remove the overload on your mind as much as possible can be very helpful.
There many approaches to productivity; check out some of the books available about multitasking and productivity:
Multitasking and Productivity